by Adam Clare
Published on: Nov 22, 2007
Type: Interviews

My chat with the co-inventor of the internet about Mars and the net neutrality movement:

Vint Cerf all but created the modern information age himself. He was one of the co-inventors of the internet and he’s now the Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. The future for him is not in the OLPC, but in mobiles, and one of the biggest hurdles in fighting the digital divide is not that people lack access to machines that connect them to the internet but that the internet itself may end up divide itself. He is concerned with how the internet is under threat by large companies wanting to charge people for accessing parts of the internet.

When creating the TCP/IP protocol (what the internet is built upon), he said that one of their goals was to have “TCP/IP on everything,” indeed, he has a t-shirt that espouses that very message. He never clearly stated whether or not the t-shirt connects to the internet. I like to think that it does.

More importantly, he is offended that companies are trying to alter the way that the internet is delivered to users, and, in his spare time he is fighting to bridge the digital divide by working on ways to ensure that the internet can be used by astronauts while they travel to Mars. He mentioned this in passing, but I can’t help but dream of the day I can connect to Mars over the internet.

At the Webby Connect conference in October, Cerf provided the conference attendees with a fantastic closing keynote and I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to talk with him after his talk. A major theme throughout our conversation about the digital divide was access to the internet and the politics of the digital divide in the USA, and sadly, not about Mars.

Net neutrality is an issue that tends to get attention in mainstream Western media whenever congress in the USA is confronted with a bill that will let telecommunications companies alter the way they deliver the internet to their clients. Cerf is concerned with companies ‘throttling’ the internet to serve some internet content faster than others, or people will have to pay extra to access the entire internet.

Cerf is quick to point out that the term net neutrality is limiting because it does not describe anything. The term neutrality in itself is vague and when accompanied by the word ‘net’, it becomes more confusing than anything. Instead, Cerf suggests that people advocate the idea of a “non-discriminatory internet connection” because the term is more descriptive, even if it is a bit a longer than net neutrality. He is not claiming that the internet is currently non-discriminatory, but it is relative to what it could become. If the large telecommunications companies get their way, they’ll be able to discriminate against whatever content, webservice, or country that you can visit while using their service.

In a time of increasing media concentration, the idea that large telecommunications are given more powers over what information is readily available, is rather frightening. The companies defend their position by arguing that transferring all that information over the internet (using TCP/IP) is expensive and they are just covering their costs. Cerf understands where they are coming from but does not express sympathy for their business models. He has no problem with the companies charging for the expenses “at a higher layer” of the internet. This “higher layer” was never fully explained to me, but I’m sure it has to do with switching business models into the 21st century.

Cerf would also stress the “consumer freedom” aspect to reach out to people who are otherwise unfamiliar with the complexities of internet access. This is to put pressure on the companies from the very people who use their service. By having their own clientele rise up and demand fair access to the internet, the companies will have to listen or go the way of the dinosaur. Cerf admits that a big part of trying to bridge the digital divide in the USA is marketing.

The digital divide is a complicated issue and what Vint Cerf and I spoke of is just one aspect of a much larger issue. Indeed, Cerf is still trying to apply what he learns from working on the space-based internet into the internet that we use on a regular basis.

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